Category Archives: Science Communication

Citations Are Reblogs

Last week we had a seminar from Nadav Drukker, a physicist who commemorates his papers with pottery.

At the speaker dinner we got to chatting about physics outreach, and one of my colleagues told an amusing story. He was explaining the idea of citations to someone at a party, and the other person latched on to the idea of citations as “likes” on Facebook. She was then shocked when he told her that a typical paper of his got around fifty citations.

“Only fifty likes???”

Ok, clearly the metaphor of citations as “likes” is more than a little silly. Liking a post is easy and quick, while citing a paper requires a full paper of your own. Obviously, citations are not “likes”.

No, citations are reblogs.

Citations are someone engaging with your paper, your “post” in this metaphor, and building on it, making it part of their own work. That’s much closer to a “reblog” (or in Facebook terms a “share”) than a “like”. More specifically, it’s a “reblog-with-commentary”, taking someone’s content and adding your own, in a way that acknowledges where the original idea came from. And while fifty “likes” on a post may seem low, fifty reblogs with commentary (not just “LOL SMH”, but actual discussion) is pretty reasonable.

The average person doesn’t know much about academia, but there are a lot of academia-like communities out there. People who’ve never written a paper might know what it’s like to use characters from someone else’s fanfiction, or sew a quilt based on a friend’s pattern. Small communities of creative people aren’t so different from each other, whether they’re writers or gamers or scientists. Each group has traditions of building on each other’s work, acknowledging where your inspiration came from, and using that to build standing in the community. Citations happen to be ours.


Seeing the Wires in Science Communication

Recently, I’ve been going to Science and Cocktails, a series of popular science lectures in Freetown Christiania. The atmosphere is great fun, but I’ve been finding the lectures themselves a bit underwhelming. It’s mostly my fault, though.

There’s a problem, common to all types of performing artists. Once you know the tricks that make a performance work, you can’t un-see them. Do enough theater and you can’t help but notice how an actor interprets their lines, or how they handle Shakespeare’s dirty jokes. Play an instrument, and you think about how they made that sound, or when they pause for breath. Work on action movies, and you start to see the wires.

This has been happening to me with science communication. Going to the Science and Cocktails lectures, I keep seeing the tricks the speaker used to make the presentation easier. I notice the slides that were probably copied from the speaker’s colloquiums, sometimes without adapting them to the new audience. I notice when an example doesn’t really fit the narrative, but is wedged in there anyway because the speaker wants to talk about it. I notice filler, like a recent speaker who spent several slides on the history of electron microscopes, starting with Hooke!

I’m not claiming I’m a better speaker than these people. The truth is, I notice these tricks because I’ve been guilty of them myself! I reuse slides, I insert pet topics, I’ve had talks that were too short until I added a long historical section.

And overall, it doesn’t seem to matter. The audience doesn’t notice our little shortcuts, just like they didn’t notice the wires in old kung-fu movies. They’re there for the magic of the performance, they want to be swept away by a good story.

I need to reconnect with that. It’s still important to avoid using blatant tricks, to cover up the wires and make things that much more seamless. But in the end, what matters is whether the audience learned something, and whether they had a good time. I need to watch not just the tricks, but the magic: what makes the audience’s eyes light up, what makes them laugh, what makes them think. I need to stop griping about the wires, and start seeing the action.

We Didn’t Deserve Hawking

I don’t usually do obituaries. I didn’t do one when Joseph Polchinksi died, though his textbook is sitting an arm’s reach from me right now. I never collaborated with Polchinski, I never met him, and others were much better at telling his story.

I never met Stephen Hawking, either. When I was at Perimeter, I’d often get asked if I had. Visitors would see his name on the Perimeter website, and I’d have to disappoint them by explaining that he hadn’t visited the institute in quite some time. His health, while exceptional for a septuagenarian with ALS, wasn’t up to the travel.

Was his work especially relevant to mine? Only because of its relevance to everyone who does gravitational physics. The universality of singularities in general relativity, black hole thermodynamics and Hawking radiation, these sharpened the questions around quantum gravity. Without his work, string theory wouldn’t have tried to answer the questions Hawking posed, and it wouldn’t have become the field it is today.

Hawking was unique, though, not necessarily because of his work, but because of his recognizability. Those visitors to Perimeter were a cross-section of the Canadian public. Some of them didn’t know the name of the speaker for the lecture they came to see. Some, arriving after reading Lee Smolin’s book, could only refer to him as “that older fellow who thinks about quantum gravity”. But Hawking? They knew Hawking. Without exception, they knew Hawking.

Who was the last physicist the public knew, like that? Feynman, at the height of his popularity, might have been close. You’d have to go back to Einstein to find someone who was really solidly known like that, who you could mention in homes across the world and expect recognition. And who else has that kind of status? Bohr might have it in Denmark. Go further back, and you’ll find people know Newton, they know Gaileo.

Einstein changed our picture of space and time irrevocably. Newton invented physics as we know it. Galileo and Copernicus pointed up to the sky and shouted that the Earth moves!

Hawking asked questions. He told us what did and didn’t make sense, he showed what we had to take into account. He laid the rules of engagement, and the rest of quantum gravity came and asked alongside him.

We live in an age of questions now. We’re starting to glimpse the answers, we have candidates and frameworks and tools, and if we’re feeling very optimistic we might already be sitting on a theory of everything. But we haven’t turned that corner yet, from asking questions to changing the world.

These ages don’t usually get a household name. Normally, you need an Einstein, a Newton, a Galileo, you need to shake the foundations of the world.

Somehow, Hawking gave us one anyway. Somehow, in our age of questions, we put a face in everyone’s mind, a figure huddled in a wheelchair with a snarky, computer-generated voice. Somehow Hawking reached out and reminded the world that there were people out there asking, that there was a big beautiful puzzle that our field was trying to solve.

Deep down, I’m not sure we deserved that. I hope we deserve it soon.

Shades of Translation

I was playing Codenames with some friends, a game about giving one-word clues to multi-word answers. I wanted to hint at “undertaker” and “march”, so I figured I’d do “funeral march”. Since that’s two words, I needed one word that meant something similar. I went with dirge, then immediately regretted it as my teammates spent the better part of two minutes trying to figure out what it meant. In the end they went with “slug”.


A dirge in its natural habitat.

If I had gone for requiem instead, we would have won. Heck, if I had just used “funeral”, we would have had a fighting chance. I had assumed my team knew the same words I did: they were also native English speakers, also nerds, etc. But the words they knew were still a shade different from the words I knew, and that made the difference.

When communicating science, you have to adapt to your audience. Knowing this, it’s still tempting to go for a shortcut. You list a few possible audiences, like “physicists”, or “children”, and then just make a standard explanation for each. This works pretty well…until it doesn’t, and your audience assumes a “dirge” is a type of slug.

In reality, each audience is different. Rather than just memorizing “translations” for a few specific groups, you need to pay attention to the shades of understanding in between.

On Wednesdays, Perimeter holds an Interdisciplinary Lunch. They cover a table with brown paper (for writing on) and impose one rule: you can’t sit next to someone in the same field.

This week, I sat next to an older fellow I hadn’t met before. He asked me what I did, and I gave my “standard physicist explanation”. This tends to be pretty heavy on jargon: while I don’t go too deep into my sub-field’s lingo, I don’t want to risk “talking down” to a physicist I don’t know. The end result is that I have to notice those “shades” of understanding as I go, hoping to get enough questions to change course if I need to.

Then I asked him what he did, and he patiently walked me through it. His explanation was more gradual: less worried about talking down to me, he was able to build up the background around his work, and the history of who worked on what. It was a bit humbling, to see the sort of honed explanation a person can build after telling variations on the same story for years.

In the end, we both had to adapt to what the other understood, to change course when our story wasn’t getting through. Neither of us could stick with the “standard physicist explanation” all the way to the end. Both of us had to shift from one shade to another, improving our translation.

Popularization as News, Popularization as Signpost

Lubos Motl has responded to my post from last week about the recent Caltech short, Quantum is Calling. His response is pretty much exactly what you’d expect, including the cameos by Salma Hayek and Kaley Cuoco.

The only surprise was his lack of concern for accuracy. Quantum is Calling got the conjecture it was trying to popularize almost precisely backwards. I was expecting that to bother him, at least a little.

Should it bother you?

That depends on what you think Quantum is Calling is trying to do.

Science popularization, even good science popularization, tends to get things wrong. Some of that is inevitable, a result of translating complex concepts to a wider audience.

Sometimes, though, you can’t really chalk it up to translation. Interstellar had some extremely accurate visualizations of black holes, but it also had an extremely silly love-powered tesseract. That wasn’t their attempt to convey some subtle scientific truth, it was just meant to sound cool.

And the thing is, that’s not a bad thing to do. For a certain kind of piece, sounding cool really is the point.

Imagine being an explorer. You travel out into the wilderness and find a beautiful waterfall.



How do you tell people about it?

One option is the press. The news can cover your travels, so people can stay up to date with the latest in waterfall discoveries. In general, you’d prefer this sort of thing to be fairly accurate: the goal here is to inform people, to give them a better idea of the world around them.

Alternatively, you can advertise. You put signposts up around town pointing toward the waterfall, complete with vivid pictures. Here, accuracy matters a lot less: you’re trying to get people excited, knowing that as they get closer they can get more detailed information.

In science popularization, the “news” here isn’t just news. It’s also blog posts, press releases, and public lectures. It’s the part of science popularization that’s supposed to keep people informed, and it’s one that we hope is mostly accurate, at least as far as possible.

The “signposts”, meanwhile, are things like Interstellar. Their audience is as wide as it can possibly be, and we don’t expect them to get things right. They’re meant to excite people, to get them interested in science. The expectation is that a few students will find the imagery interesting enough to go further, at which point they can learn the full story and clear up any remaining misconceptions.

Quantum is Calling is pretty clearly meant to be a signpost. The inaccuracy is one way to tell, but it should be clear just from the context. We’re talking about a piece with Hollywood stars here. The relative star-dom of Zoe Saldana and Keanu Reeves doesn’t matter, the presence of any mainstream film stars whatsoever means they’re going for the broadest possible audience.

(Of course, the fact that it’s set up to look like an official tie-in to the Star Trek films doesn’t hurt matters either.)

They’re also quite explicit about their goals. The piece’s predecessor has Keanu Reeves send a message back in time, with the goal of inspiring a generation of young scientists to build a future paradise. They’re not subtle about this.

Ok, so what’s the problem? Signposts are allowed to be inaccurate, so the inaccuracy shouldn’t matter. Eventually people will climb up to the waterfall and see it for themselves, right?

What if the waterfall isn’t there?


Like so:

The evidence for ER=EPR (the conjecture that Quantum is Calling is popularizing) isn’t like seeing a waterfall. It’s more like finding it via surveying. By looking at the slope of nearby terrain and following the rivers, you can get fairly confident that there should be a waterfall there, even if you can’t yet see it over the next ridge. You can then start sending scouts, laying in supplies, and getting ready for a push to the waterfall. You can alert the news, telling journalists of the magnificent waterfall you expect to find, so the public can appreciate the majesty of your achievement.

What you probably shouldn’t do is put up a sign for tourists.

As I hope I made clear in my last post, ER=EPR has some decent evidence. It hasn’t shown that it can handle “foot traffic”, though. The number of researchers working on it is still small. (For a fun but not especially rigorous exercise, try typing “ER=EPR” and “AdS/CFT” into physics database INSPIRE.) Conjectures at this stage are frequently successful, but they often fail, and ER=EPR still has a decent chance of doing so. Tying your inspiring signpost to something that may well not be there risks sending tourists up to an empty waterfall. They won’t come down happy.

As such, I’m fine with “news-style” popularizations of ER=EPR. And I’m fine with “signposts” for conjectures that have shown they can handle some foot traffic. (A piece that sends Zoe Saldana to the holodeck to learn about holography could be fun, for example.) But making this sort of high-profile signpost for ER=EPR feels irresponsible and premature. There will be plenty of time for a Star Trek tie-in to ER=EPR once it’s clear the idea is here to stay.

Words, Words, Words

If there’s one thing the Center for Communicating Science drummed into me at Stony Brook, it’s to be careful with words. You can teach your audience new words, but only a few: effectively, you have a vocabulary budget.

Sometimes, the risk is that your audience will misunderstand you. If you’re a biologist who talks about treating disease in a model, be careful: the public is more likely to think of mannequins than mice.


NOT what you’re talking about

Sometimes, though, the risk is subtler. Even if the audience understands you, you might still be using up your vocabulary budget.

Recently, Perimeter’s monthly Public Lecture was given by an expert on regenerative medicine. When talking about trying to heal eye tissue, she mentioned looking for a “pupillary response”.

Now, “pupillary response” isn’t exactly hard to decipher. It’s pretty clearly a response by the pupil of the eye. From there, you can think about how eyes respond to bright light, or to darkness, and have an idea of what she’s talking about.

So nobody is going to misunderstand “pupillary response”. Nonetheless, that chain of reasoning? It takes time, and it takes effort. People do have to stop and think, if only for a moment, to know what you mean.

That adds up. Every time your audience has to take a moment to think back and figure out what you just said? That eats into your vocabulary budget. Enough moments like that, and your audience won’t have the energy to follow what you’re saying: you’ll lose them.

The last few Public Lectures haven’t had as much online engagement as they used to. Lots of people still watch them, but fewer have been asking questions on twitter, for example. I have a few guesses about why this is…but I wonder if this kind of thing is part of it. The last few speakers have been more free with technical terms, more lax with their vocabulary budget. I worry that, while people still show up for the experience, they aren’t going away with any understanding.

We don’t need to dumb things down to be understood. (Or not very much anyway.) We do need to be careful with our words. Use our vocabulary budget sparingly, and we can really teach people. Spend it too fast…and we lose them.

Physics Is about Legos

There’s a summer camp going on at Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing called QCSYS, the Quantum Cryptography School for Young Students. A lot of these kids are interested in physics in general, not just quantum computing, so they give them a tour of Perimeter. While they’re here, they get a talk from a local postdoc, and this year that postdoc was me.

There’s an image that Perimeter has tossed around a lot recently, All Known Physics in One Equation. This article has an example from a talk given by Neil Turok. I thought it would be fun to explain that equation in terms a (bright, recently taught about quantum mechanics) high school student could understand. To do that, I’d have to explain what the equation is made of: spinors and vectors and tensors and the like.

The last time I had to explain that kind of thing here, I used a video game metaphor. For this talk, I came up with a better metaphor: legos.

Vectors are legos. Spinors are legos. Tensors are legos. They’re legos because they can be connected up together, but only in certain ways. Their “bumps” have to line up properly. And their nature as legos determines what you can build with them.

If you’re interested, here’s my presentation. Experts be warned: there’s a handwaving warning early in this talk, and it applies to a lot of it. In particular, the discussion of gauge group indices leaves out a lot. My goal in this talk was to give a vague idea of what the Standard Model Lagrangian is “made of”, and from the questions I got I think I succeeded.